He's also a player who will always be tied to one of the league's most tragic moments -- a hit that left New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed from the neck down in a preseason game.
Tatum, who was called the "Assassin," died Tuesday at age 61 in an Oakland hospital. The cause was a massive heart attack, according to friend and former Ohio State teammate John Hicks. Tatum had battled diabetes and other health problems for years, Hicks said.
"We are deeply saddened by the news of Jack Tatum's passing," the Raiders said in a statement. "Jack was a true Raider champion and a true Raider warrior. .. Jack was the standard bearer and an inspiration for the position of safety throughout college and professional football."
Tatum's collision with Stingley happened Aug. 12, 1978, at Oakland Coliseum.
Stingley was cutting inside when he lunged for a pass that fell incomplete. Bearing down at full speed from the opposite direction, Tatum met Stingley while the receiver was off balance and leaning forward. Stingley crumpled to the ground, his fourth and fifth vertebrae severed.
Over the years, Stingley regained limited use of his body, but he spent the rest of his life in an electric wheelchair. He died in 2007.
There were never words of consolation or an apology from Tatum, and the two players never spoke after the hit.
"It was tough on him, too," Hicks said of Tatum. "He wasn't the same person after that (hit). For years, he was almost a recluse."
Tatum said he tried to visit Stingley at an Oakland hospital shortly after the hit but was turned away by Stingley's family.
"It's not so much that Darryl doesn't want to, but it's the people around him," Tatum told the Oakland Tribune in 2004. "So we haven't been able to get through that. Every time we plan something, it gets messed up. Getting to him or him getting back to me, it never happens."
Tatum, though, showed no remorse for his headhunting ways in a 1980 book, "They Call Me Assassin" and the follow-ups "They Still Call Me Assassin: Here We Go Again" in 1989 and "Final Confessions of an NFL Assassin" in 1996.
"He wasn't the type of person who was really out trying to maim anybody or hurt anybody," Brown said. "He was just doing his job. That's the way he played the game."
After starring for Ohio State under coach Woody Hayes, Tatum was drafted in the first round by the Raiders in 1971. In nine seasons with Oakland, he started 106 of 120 games, had 30 interceptions and helped the Raiders win Super Bowl XI in the 1976 season. He played his final NFL season with the Houston Oilers in 1980.
In his third book, Tatum wrote, "I understand why Darryl is considered the victim. But I'll never understand why some people look at me as the villain."
Tatum wasn't penalized on the play and the NFL took no disciplinary action, although it did tighten its rules on violent hits.
Despite their lingering resentment, Stingley was gracious in 2003 when he learned Tatum had diabetes and several toes amputated.
"You can't, as a human being, feel happy about something like that happening to another human being," Stingley told The Boston Globe.
Tatum began a charitable group to help kids with diabetes and helped raise more than $1.4 million to fight the disease in the Columbus area.
"He was a good athlete and a good person," Hicks said. "He gave a lot back to the community, but he didn't want a lot said about it."
Tatum also was involved in "The Immaculate Reception" during the Raiders' 1972 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. With 22 seconds left, Tatum jarred loose a desperation pass from Terry Bradshaw to Frenchy Fuqua with a trademark hit. The ball ricocheted into the arms of Steelers running back Franco Harris, who never broke stride and ran 42 yards for the winning touchdown.
Tatum grew up in Passaic, N.J., and had little interest in organized sports until high school. However, he grew to love football and was offered a scholarship to Ohio State.
Recruited as a running back, Tatum would sneak over to the defensive side to play linebacker. In time, Ohio State coaches -- particularly secondary coach Lou Holtz -- recognized that Tatum was a natural on defense.
Tatum was a part of the "super sophs" class that led Ohio State to an unbeaten season and the national championship in 1968. He stole the headlines in a showdown with No. 1 Purdue early in the season, shadowing All-American running back Leroy Keyes in the Buckeyes' 13-0 upset of the Boilermakers.
In his three years as a starter at Ohio State, Tatum's teams went 27-2 and won two Big Ten Conference titles.
Each week after an Ohio State game, the coaching staff awards the "Jack Tatum hit of the week" award for the hardest tackle or block by a Buckeye.
"We have lost one of our greatest Buckeyes," current Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said in a statement released by the school. "When you think of Ohio State defense, the first name that comes to mind is Jack Tatum. His loss touches every era of Ohio State players and fans."
Tatum is a member of the Ohio State and college football halls of fame.
It was unfortunate that Tatum's hitting overshadowed how well he did everything else, Brown said.
"Jack should be in the Hall of Fame. There's no question, no doubt about it," he said. "When you're playing back in the middle, you have one job to do (and) that's stop the long pass right down the middle. He did that better than anybody that I could think of."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.